Tito Puente, the playful bandleader who ushered in the first Latin invasion of American popular music, died Wednesday night at the age of 77 at New York U Medical Center.
Puente, who in February picked up his fifth Grammy award, died after complications during heart surgery.
The percussionist found his popularity was almost always on the upswing with one musical community or another throughout his 53-year career. For dancers in the 1950s, he popularized the mambo and cha-cha by marrying Cuban charanga with big band arrangements; in the 1960s and 1980s he was popular with jazz fans; in the early 1970s, Santana’s version of his 1962 composition “Oye Como Va” introduced him to the rock crowd; and the 1992 pic “The Mambo Kings” put him in front of film audiences.
Puente started working in 1937, eventually recording more than 100 albums and touring relentlessly throughout his life. He played timbales, vibraphone, piano, congas, bongos and saxophone in addition to arranging and composing music. Contrasting the seriousness of his music, Puente had an animated and comic stage presence that won him fans of all ages.
In 1957, Puente was the first to incorporate voodoo rhythms with jazz.
Another of his innovations was to move the timbales — mounted drums played with sticks — to the front of the bandstand. It earned him the nickname “El Rey de los Timbales.”
He was born Ernest Anthony Puente Jr. to Puerto Rican parents in New York City. As a child, Puente set his sights on a dance career that ended with a tendon injury. At the age of 13, he started playing drums in Ramon Olivero’s big band.
Puente performed with Xavier Cugat and the Cuarteto Caney before joining the Navy during World War II. After his discharge, he studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York and worked with Latin jazz pioneer Machito and Noro Morales.
He formed his own Picadilly Boys band, which would eventually become the Tito Puente Orchestra, to play New York’s Latin dance mecca, the Palladium. That band changed the face of Latin music and included non-Latin jazz artists such as trumpeter Doc Severinson.
At the time he included jazz standards (“Lullaby of Broadway” and “Yesterdays,” for example) with a Latin beat in the band’s repertoire; later he would take pop and rock hits, such as “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” and give them a Latin feel, too. He would later record music by jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver.
After defining “tropical” music in the 1950s and ’60s, Puente turned to salsa (even though he hated that moniker and said it was a sauce, not the name of a musical genre) in the 1970s and recorded several albums with salsa queen Celia Cruz before turning to more traditional Latin jazz.
Puente is survived by his wife, Margie, two sons and a daughter.